Jascha, Mischa and Yehudi, Inc.

Jews and violins make beautiful music together

No ancient culture was without its musical accompaniments. Music was central to the religious ritual of these many civilizations as well as companion to their recurring events – marriages, births, deaths, warfare and the periodic appeasement of their gods.

Stringed instruments such as the harp or the lute were clearly documented in the earliest accounts of these primitive civilizations. The strings for these instruments were fashioned from the processed fibers derived from the intestines of cattle and then positioned in a parallel array with each string tightened to produce an assigned musical note. The art of constructing the stringed instrument now called the violin is said to have begun in the northern Italian city of Cremona with the creative labors of a 16th-century luthier (lute maker) named Andrea Amati. His sons continued the family art and attracted many apprentices, including Antonio Stradivari and Andrea Guarneri, to their workshop.

Over the centuries, the violin has matured into the quintessential instrument of emotional expression. On most days, the violin is merely a musical instrument. But sometimes, but sometimes, in the hands of a virtuoso, it becomes transformed and exceeds its most promising self – it sobs, it beguiles, it murmurs, it sings with a celestial voice that would humble the angels. Its eloquent sounds become  supremely sensuous, even vaguely erotic. It speaks as no other musical contrivance possibly can.

By the 19th century, the violin had become the leading folk instrument of Eastern Europe. The family violin was a cherished possession that was quite portable in the event of forced migration.

It became the favorite instrument of the shtetl Jews, the Romani gypsies and the romantically inclined Hungarians. Although some rabbis mildly disapproved of the instrument, the violin “spoke Yiddish” to make a grandmother cry.

And why did some rabbis object?

Because one of its uses was as the lead istrument in traveling klezmer groups composed of increasingly secular musicians who sometimes joined with Romani musicians to bring joyous entertainment to the stressed rural communities of Eastern Europe.

But beyond these klezmer musicians, there was a Jewish tradition in the 19th century that every young person (primarily, but not exclusively, boys) be literate in Scriptures and, additionally, be able to play the violin. Not every family had a violin, and not every family passed along to their sons the manifold intricacies of fiddling. But a sufficient number of Jewish mothers emphasized violin practice over daydreaming and so the world has been blessed with generations upon generations of amazing virtuosi, inspired musicians – predominantly, but not exclusively, men – who have brought the world to cherish fine fiddling.

Their names? Leopold Auer, Joshua Bell, Eta Cohen, Jascha Heifitz, Bronislaw Huberman, Alma Rose, Alexander Schneider, Gil Shaham, Isaac Stern, Mischa Elman, Ilona Fehér, Leonid Kogan, Yehudi Menuhin, Nathan Milstein, David Oistrakh, Itzhak Perlman, Joseph Szigeti, Efrem Zimbalist and Pinchas Zukerman. (These are some names that I recall.)

Why were there so many gifted violinists among the Jews of Eastern Europe? Some say that it was because grand pianos were too expensive and certainly too heavy to move when the family was confronted with an imminent pogrom. Then how does this explain such gifted 20th-century pianists as Vladimir Horowitz, Emil Gilels, Arthur Rubinstein, Artur Schnabel and a battalion of others equally talented? Why are there so many Jewish concert artists, whether playing at a Minsk wedding, on ah roof or upon Carnegie Hall’s center stage? Neither geneticists, ethnologists, sociologists nor those who simply speculate for a living have a satisfactory answer.

In the words of my grandmother: “So don’t complain; just enjoy!”

Stanley M. Aronson, M.D. (smamd@cox.net) is a Providence resident.